Chronicles from the Nuevo South
In early March, I was invited to travel to Louisville and sit on a panel for the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). It was my first visit to Louisville, and I became instantly enamored with this city that is interspersed with church steeples and Victorians and strewn with lush, green parks. Southerners’ penchant for hospitality may be famous, but the people of Louisville (which I learned must be pronounced Luh-ville) epitomize it. Waiters in restaurants were eager to engage in conversation and people on the street smiled. Even strangers wished me a great day.
The IACP conference is run by some of our best culinary minds—food writers, media personalities, agents, chefs, food activists, and nutritionists, all of whom are committed to furthering the stability and growth of the world’s foodways. We came to Louisville from all over the globe to trade ideas and break bread together (in Kentucky, this meant sharing fried chicken, barbecue, hot browns, and mac ’n’ cheese—with a good dose of bourbon). Social change is inevitably a part of this work. For the past decade, the IACP conference has encouraged women to take to the podium and grab the microphone, a radical act in what has been a male-dominated industry.
My panel included two of the most influential women in today’s South, fellow food writers Toni Tipton-Martin and Ronni Lundy. Toni is the James Beard Award–winning author of The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks. The first African-American woman to be food editor of a major newspaper (the Cleveland Plain Dealer), she has been invited to the White House by First Lady Michelle Obama—not once, but twice—in recognition of her work with families and children. She is sweet and strong, funny and serious, intelligent and talented. As my husband once put it upon meeting her, Toni is “intense and principled.” Ronni Lundy, who also contributes to this magazine, is the author of Victuals: An Appalachian Journey with Recipes, recent winner of two James Beard Foundation Book Awards. Her area of expertise is the cuisine of her home region, Appalachia, and her writing is exceptionally lyrical. I’ve found her to be profound, strong, honest, humble, and deeply generous.
Toni, Ronni, and I are not new to the global lecture circle. For decades now, we have each been writing as representatives of minority women (the African American, the Latina, and the Appalachian white) in the South, and I suggested that our panel address our collective opinion on how female voices are often absent from the discussion of Southern foodways.
Together, we were on a mission: to dispel the existing patriarchal and racial power structures that have historically defined our field, ever since white male conquerors landed in indigenous territories and set into motion the belief that people of a different gender, race, or class were considered less able to intellectually and equally contribute to society. The Old World may have had their queens and empresses, from Cleopatra to Queen Elizabeth I, long before it descended on the Americas. However, whether in academia or in government, Southern women—particularly those of us in minority groups—still have to fight to be heard and respected at the risk of being called “angry” or “problematic.”
For centuries, white men, even among servants, had the advantage of education, social freedom, and power. For just as long, men in academia have controlled the narrative of food in the South, mostly without challenge. Or, as Toni argued about the African-American context in foodways: “Our creative intelligence has been largely left out of the written record. Slightly more is known about male butlers, White House chefs, and entrepreneurs, but when it comes to talking about the accomplishments of women, the records, until recently, have been mostly silent.” What we wanted to reclaim that morning in Louisville was women’s rightful place in what has become a rapidly developing conversation by chefs, writers, and scholars about the ownership and appropriation of Southern food.
We titled our presentation “The Sound of Silence.” To be clear: We didn’t have a bone to pick with any specific person. Rather, the three of us have each experienced direct condescension from men in different areas of academia throughout our entire careers. In addition, we believe that history has been documented by men, leaving women in a position of secondary characters.
Progress has certainly been made; luminaries like OA columnist John T. Edge, who directs the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), have long made it possible to have an open discussion about both race and class at the Southern table. John T’s and the SFA’s work on the presence of minorities and different cultural forces in Southern foodways is not only trailblazing but also critical to the discussion of our collective history. It takes guts, vision, and passion to bring these truths forward. However, to the public at large—and to our audience that morning in Louisville—this candid conversation is still needed.
Ronni kicked off our discussion: “The very language of intellectual discourse about the past insists that we use the gender-specifying male pronoun to indicate any active participant whose name or gender we don’t know, so we continue to talk about various ‘he’ actors.” Toni followed: “Institutional systems were put in place by landholding white men to maintain their superiority over the underclass—including black people and white women—in general.”
In fact, most of the world’s history has been written by white men. We had started our panel by providing context to this idea, explaining that the silencing of entire peoples has everything to do with who sets the definitions of what encompasses history: Who writes it? Who gets to tell it? And most important, who doesn’t?
To quote Ronni: “Here’s the subtle way this story has taken: we do acknowledge that native people were clever enough to take a plant that had one seed in it and cultivate it to create a cob that could feed you. And to figure out that if you ate it raw, it wasn’t going to do you a lot of nutritional good, so you had to mix it with an alkaline and ‘nixtamalize’ it. I can tell you that the odds were 99.9 percent that the person was a woman because every indication we have suggests it was far more likely that the early horticulturists, pot-makers, preservers of foods, et cetera, were women. But how do we refer to this mysterious unknown ancestor when we write about ‘him’? We refer to ‘him’ because in our language, proper language insists that if you do not know the gender identity of a subject, you refer to that identity as ‘him.’ And so immediately, when you have silenced a woman’s story, you have now not only told her to shut up, but anything that she achieves becomes, by default, the story of a man.”
Our point, of course, was to indicate how these systems are still succeeding today. As a nueva sureña, I offered my own experience. I have often been surprised to find that Southern culture is as “machista” as the societies in Latin America that so many love to ridicule; I have found my voice doubted and silenced more in the South than it ever was in Guatemala, where I grew up. I am not new to academia. My father founded one of the first private dental schools in Latin America—one that is world-renowned today—and my mother was an economics professor at a major university in Guatemala City. I grew up participating in political debates at the widest spectrums of ideology. Throughout my formative years, even as a child, I was encouraged to speak my mind freely, as long as I maintained the spirit of respectful dissent. Even then, I had a voice and used it often and freely—sometimes in dangerous times when what you said could get you kidnapped or worse. Latinas, in my observation, are among the most silenced minorities in the South today, perceived as uneducated and ignorant of the region and its issues. Such assumptions automatically cancel out any contribution we bring, either to a scholarly conversation or to our communities.
During the panel, I wasn’t surprised when Ronni spoke of how we’ve ignored the contributions of Native American women in both agriculture and the preparation of food. “We rarely study the free black women who used entrepreneurial skills in foodways to ensure their continued freedom,” she said. “We do not acknowledge the rise of a black middle class in the South, and we do not acknowledge that there were white women who cooked in their own homes and influenced the foodways—in the middle class, but particularly among the poor.”
We cited the present-day debate on the “appropriation” of Southern food—a quarrel led by male chefs, male food scholars, and male writers—as well as our deeply held belief that this argument only serves to encourage men in their beating-of-chests, seeking superiority over one another, while distracting us from other more important issues. Although black men are now welcomed into the argument, the conversation is not diverse. Early last year, Hillary Dixler wrote an article about appropriation for Eater that created a social media storm. But to Toni, Ronni, and myself, the theme itself wasn’t problematic as much as the fact that all of the voices quoted in the article were male—proof, we believe, that men still own the conversation. At the panel, we stated what should be obvious: such arguments over recipe ownership continue to leave out half the cooking population.
In Ronni’s words: the appropriation conversation “is almost exclusively conducted by men and concerned with who has the right to profit from Southern food: black men or white. The conversation very occasionally gives a cursory nod to women but fails to ever acknowledge that overwhelmingly, the monetization of any foodways has been controlled by men who are appropriating the skills, craft, recipes, and products initially created by unnamed, uncompensated women.”
In my opinion, this conversation ignores immigrant women who are effecting valuable and tangible transformation in the food culture of the South right now—because, although we are not originally “from these parts,” we have made (and will continue to make) palpable contributions to Southern food, starting with the blending of ingredients, recipes, and culinary customs of different cultures. Think of this the next time you add chipotle peppers to your barbecue sauce, or when you top your burgers with kimchi, or each time you enjoy a scoop of corn ice cream with benne-praline sauce. Where did the ingredients and techniques used to craft these recipes come from originally? Who owns them?
Think of Southern foodways as a large tree, I said that morning. At its roots are Native American, European, and African foodways—the three cultures at the base of Southern cuisine. The trunk of the tree is comprised of many cooks—professional chefs and home cooks, authors and historians—who create, write, and preserve the recipes. The branches represent different movements within Southern food (Creole, Cajun, Appalachian, Coastal, Soul Food, Jewish-Southern, New Southern-Latino, and others). Then, the fruits: our recipes, formulas, and dishes. Without the roots, there is no trunk; without the trunk there are no branches; without the branches there are no fruits. Together, the tree stands and offers a growing shadow that covers more territory. Truncated by anger and division, the tree will fall.
I offered a thought experiment: Who can claim ownership of the barbecue platter? After all, there were no pigs in the South before they were domesticated in Asia and brought over by the Spaniards. Europeans brought wheat to make bread, cabbages for coleslaw, and eggs to make mayonnaise. We had corn, but no leaveners, milk, or buttermilk to make hush puppies, as we know them today. Let’s go further: who owns the term “barbecue?” The cooking technique and even the term barbacoa were coined by the Taíno Indians in what is today the Dominican Republic (known back then as the Hispaniola); the Spaniards brought it to the South.
We took questions after the panel. One of the first came from a white woman who wanted to know if as minorities, we still feel we need white people to vouch for our credentials today. She got a resounding Yes. Firstly, publishing houses are headed mostly by white people who decide whether our work is worth publishing. Toni was quick to point out: “If you were to refer to the front of my book The Jemima Code, you will see that this practice has not ended—my mentor John Edgerton and Barbara Haber were my endorsements. Those two [endorsements] went in the front of the book very strategically, to guarantee in a kind of coded language that I was okay.”
A Filipino-American woman asked us how we each deal with the micro-aggressions found within our own communities; she told us that she was taught to “always be subdued and that we shouldn’t be outspoken—that we should bow down to the lightest skin possible in the room.” In that situation, as Ronni put it, “You try to keep your presence, but by God, you call them on it! And you keep questioning and you make them answer to you. You do not answer to them.”
Another woman wanted to know how I engage with men who won’t give women a chance to enter a conversation. I found out early on that it was up to me to re-claim my voice as a well-educated and respected woman in my career before I could find my activist side. I have learned to find my own seat at any table even when I’m not invited to sit at it. I don’t wait to be asked.
By refusing to be divided among ourselves, Toni, Ronni, and I hope to offer a set of shoulders upon which the next generation of women—of many different colors and cultures—can stand. We ended our morning with a call to action: to fill our Southern tables with Southern food and use it to bring different people together. Go to the uncomfortable places, talk about your truths, and agree to disagree if you must—but break bread together, with respect.
“I hope to stand upon my convictions, but not so rigidly that I cannot allow them to grow and change as needed,” Ronni has said. “Self-respect (which includes respect of my roots, community, and gender) and compassionate awareness of the lives of others are the emotions I’m most interested in continuing to nurture right now. Anger is a good spark, but I’m not sure yet how to make it (or if it can be) a sustainable flame.”
So how do we move forward? We keep talking. And we make sure that no one is silenced, even if we must grab the microphone ourselves so it can be shared.